Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How To Win at Magic: Part 1: The Harry Potter Effect

Back in 1993 a game came out that sort of changed everything about gaming. That game was called Magic.
There were really only two types of gaming back around 1990: RPG (role-playing (like D&D (get your minds out of the gutter))) and tabletopping (like Warhammer). That had been the status quo for a decade or so at that point. [Being a "gamer" meant something completely different back in 1990 than it does today (a good example of how terms change meaning), because video games had not yet had the explosion that MMOs such as Everquest and WoW would bring them.] To make this clear, prior to the release of Magic, my gamer buddies and I met several times a week to play many different games.

There was a night for D&D. There was another night for some other kind of role playing game which varied based on who was GMing and whatever game they wanted to be running. Other nights would be for Warhammer Fantasy Battle, the tabletop game we played. At least two nights of that a week in various formats. Sometimes, there were even board games like Risk and, every once in a while, poker. So, yeah, I was a pretty serious "gamer."

Mostly, the guys I gamed with had actual, real social skills. Many of the guys on the fringe, the guys we didn't play with on a regular basis, did not have social skills. As an example, on of those guys was called "Boogie" and that name had nothing to do with dancing. This was not a name that he was called behind his back. It was what he was known as, how he referred to himself, and he was in full knowledge of where the nickname came from, and he was fine with that. I only tell you that to confirm that some of those stereotypical views of "gamers" had a strong basis in reality.

Like I said, though, the guys I gamed with were mostly not like that, although they had all gone to the same high school as me, which meant that there was some amount of nerd in each of them just for the sake of the fact that you had to be smart to get into the school.

Mostly, we met at a particular friend's house, because, of all of us, he was the only one that was married and had a house. And a kid. This was probably the reason that only the socially adept were in our group, because, below a certain aptitude at communication and social graces, my friend's wife would not allow the person over to the house. Boogie was one of those people. He was allowed over one time to participate in a tabletop event, and my friend's wife very firmly let it be known after he had left that Boogie was not to come over again. We had another guy in the group that was only barely able to be there. The wife was always on the verge of kicking him out, because he had no control over his mouth.

There were some nights when we'd meet at the comic shop when those that were more like Boogie were allowed to be involved in whatever it was we were doing.

All of that is kind of beside the point, though. Mostly, it's just to show you how things were. We gamed. We played a lot of different games. We tried out new games. There were all kinds of things going on that we did, and we had different nights for the different things, so you could kind of pick and choose what nights you wanted to be involved. It was a lot of fun. Yes, I do miss those days.

Then came the fall of '93. One of the guys in our group took a trip out here to CA and brought Magic back with him because it hadn't yet made it to Louisiana. It changed everything. We were all, and I do mean all of us, fascinated by the game, and we all undertook it to get cards and put in a big group order through the mail to a CA retailer to get some. Seriously, it was well into '94 before the cards became available enough for any of the local stores to be able to stock the cards. Magic had the same effect on out little gaming world as Harry Potter had on the book world.

After Magic, everything was Magic. That's all we did. Often, we got together four or five nights a week to play. Once the local retailers were finally able to start stocking the cards (summer of '94 with the release of the Legends expansion), tournaments started happening, and everything became focused on that. Often, our evenings of playing were really only to refine our decks for the weekly tournament. [I was the top ranked player in north LA through '94 while we were tracking player stats. After that, Wizards of the Coast came up with their own ranking system, and we quit tracking it. It was a lot of hassle, and we had a lot of players in and out of the store by that point. (We were the biggest tournament location in north LA, so people would come from hours away to play every week.)] It was more than two years before we started filtering back into doing things that weren't Magic.

Harry Potter had pretty much the same impact on books and, well, kind of, everything. Harry Potter changed the landscape of popular culture and reading and movies and... like I said, everything. It was a, ready for it?, game changer.

The interesting thing to me about both of these phenomena is that neither creator created with the intention of "taking over the world." They made an excellent product, and it, the taking over the world, just happened. In fact, Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic, wasn't even trying to make/sell Magic. He had this other game, RoboRally, that he was trying to sell to WotC, but the guy at WotC told him what they really wanted was something portable. Garfield decided on a card game.

So... the first way to win at Magic: have a good idea and make it into the best product you can.

Here are some of my favorite cards from the Beta edition of Magic:
It's a great card, but it also went well with my whole elf thing from Warhammer (in which I played wood elves). No, I'm not going to explain how those things go together.
Not incredibly powerful but nice art and, again, elf.
The first Mox I ever pulled from a pack. The pack of cards cost $2.49; the Mox Emerald is currently worth over $500.00. I own this.
The most expensive card in Magic at up to $2000.00. Yes, I own this, too.
One of the best pieces of art from the initial series of cards.


  1. It did take over. Never got into tournament play or anything serious though. Still have my cards and decks, most of which came from 1993-1995.

  2. Magic. I did have a lot of friends that fell in love with the game. I tried but it never moved me like it did other folks. There was a guy that worked for me around 96 or 97 that used to ask off of work to travel to tournaments. I remember it so well because I thought it had already passed it's prime at that point.

    Me - I did enjoy the art.

  3. Ha, the Serra Angel is seriously the most expensive card in Magic? I kid you not, I have one of those in my old deck, just sitting in a box in a closet.

    Yes, that's right, I'm no stranger to this game, just as I'm no stranger to D&D. I loved Magic when I was younger.

  4. I think I will have to make a trip to Andrew's house to steal that $2000 card. I never played Magic but my brother had some of the Star Trek TNG game that was like that and I played it a little bit, but like most things I never could get into it as much as the people who were really serious about it.

  5. I finally figured D & D was Dungeons and Dragons. As for Magic, never heard of it. Must have been an American craze, don't think it ever reached England which is surprising if it was that popular.


  6. Alex: Ah, see, now I want to know what cards you have.

    JKIR,F: Oh, you have no idea. I went to his "house" once. Let me stress the "once."

    Rusty: The game's still growing, so I'm not sure that it's even hit its prime, yet. And this year is 20 years, so I'm betting on some interesting stuff from them. Wish I still had time to play and collect.

    A lot of the art was freaking amazing.

    ABftS: No, that caption goes to the Black Lotus above it. I mean, I have a stack of Serra Angels.

    PT: I have ST somewhere, but I never played it. I only have it because I sold it back when I did that kind of thing.
    And you'd have to find the card, first, which would take you long enough to get caught, I'm sure.

    Jo: Oh, no, Magic is everywhere. There is a huge international tournament each year with some huge prizes. I'm pretty sure ESPN still televises it.

  7. have beta moxes and beta black lotus...

    I'm so jealous.

    I understand exactly how much that stuff is worth.

    Next thing you'll tell me is that you own four Juzam Djinn, a Library of Alexandria, all original beta dual lands, and beta savannah lions.

    I already hate you.

  8. Michael: I'm actually kind of out of touch with how much all of this stuff is worth. The last time I looked before I was writing this post, a Lotus was only worth around $800, if that tells you how long it's been. I was completely caught off guard by how much it is now.

  9. I never played any of those RPG games. No D&D, no Magic, no nothing. I was still trying to figure out how to win The Legend of Zelda.

  10. I've always kind of wanted to play Magic. Most people my age don't seem to play it, preferring D&D or GURPS. However I recently visited a friend who's doing his graduate work on a college campus, and at around midnight we went to the student union for a late-night dance and there was a small group playing Magic in the common area. When we left at around 3 AM, they were still chugging along and we stopped to chat with them briefly. It seems like a fun game, and it was nice to see someone still playing it, apparently with some devotion.

  11. Callie: Well, just as with Mr. Potter, people did eventually move to reading other things, and, so other games get played again. WotC owns D&D now because of Magic, though, making them the central gaming company in the world. I'm pretty sure Magic is still the highest selling game now that Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh have fallen out.

  12. Yeah, that was a shame about Duel Monsters. I actually quite enjoyed that one, although I only started playing it because there was a significant period of time when it was literally the only way to spend time with my brother...

  13. Callie: Oh, yeah, Duel Masters! I liked that game. It was way better than how things turned out for it. I think we ended up with a full collection of that. My kids liked the cartoon, too. Man, now I want to play that!

  14. I loved the Serra Angel. And the Wrath of God card.

    Having recently gotten back into it, it's crazy to see how much has changed... and yet it's still just as addictive.

    One of my favorite artists from back then was Quinton Hoover (who passed away recently). Oddly, I learned after meeting Tracy (artist I'm hiring for A Sawmill's Hope) they were not just acquainted but good friends as well! ... Small world.

  15. Very cool that you have that Mox AND the Black Lotus!! I have none of my cards from back in the day...

  16. David: Yeah, I actually have a full beta/unlimited set, so I have all the stuff.
    They've slowed the game down a lot, so it's a bit different these days. There's also a stronger emphasis on huge, crushing creatures.
    But I still love the game.

    I didn't realize Hoover had died.

    (Did you check out the rest of these posts?)